If you’ve been in the association/chamber business for a while, you’ve likely come across peers who are facing intense conflict with their board chair. It may even have happened to you – with board chairs changing every 1 to 2 years in most organizations, it’s nearly inevitable you’ll hit a bad apple. How can you prevent that from happening, and what can you do if it does?
Prevention always beats a cure and selecting a board chair is no exception. Ensuring the prospective chair is interested for the right reason – to advance the mission of the organization, not for personal gain or because they have an issue with the CEO – is a critical first step. When recruiting board members, always consider which would make effective board chairs – and make sure there are several, because life happens. Every board member needn’t aspire to be chair, but don’t get caught where none of them do! How do you know? Ask them as you are recruiting if they aspire to a leadership role – you may be surprised by who says yes.
Equally important is that they understand the job – and yours – and don’t see it as an opportunity to remake the organization. Properly orienting them to the job before they start is the key to success here – and it’s far better done by a prior chair than by the CEO. Topics for discussion include the respective roles of the chair and the CEO, successful board management, special responsibilities such as organizing the CEO’s annual review, and the importance of respecting each other and working as a team.
Board Chair- CEO Agreement
Once the prospective chair has been oriented to his or her role, they should have an open conversation with the CEO about how they will work together. It may be wise to codify this into a written agreement to which both can refer later.
Topics to be covered include:
- mutual respect for each other’s role in the organization – and clarity about what those roles are
- how each prefers to communicate, including how often and by what means
- agreement to consult regularly on important matters impacting the organization
- no surprises – communicate first with each other if a problem is on the horizon before including others
- clear expectations of what each hopes to accomplish, and how those expectations relate to the organization’s strategic plan
When Things Go Wrong
While hopefully these steps will prevent a bad situation, what can you do when they don’t? First, identify and talk through the conflict, preferably before it becomes a conflagration. A past chair or other neutral facilitator may be helpful for this conversation. Second, identify allies on the board and executive committee who can act as your proxy if the chair is undermining you. They may enable you to survive until a new chair takes office.
Throughout this process, maintain professional decorum and don’t get defensive – being helpful and solicitous can sometimes defuse a bad situation. But know when it’s time to go – or time for them to if your board allies are willing to advocate for that – and have an exit plan. A bad board chair-CEO relationship can impact your health, and no job is worth that.